What They Did: 102-60, 1st Place NL East. Lost in NLDS
Actual Runs: Scored 713 runs, Allowed 529.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 102.6 (0.6 above actual)
Restated: Scored 692 runs, Allowed 569.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 95.4 (6.6 below actual)
My favorite baseball writer, Joe Sheehan, likes to say that from a fan’s perspective the ideal baseball team owner is one who values a marginal win more than a marginal dollar of profit. I really like that idea because it doesn’t endorse recklessness; it’s not a win-at-all-cost philosophy Rather, it recognizes the trade-off inherent in chasing wins but lauds the owner who puts a little more weight on obtaining the next win, even at the cost of short-term profit. Using that standard as a guideline, Philadelphia Phillies fans have had things pretty good the last three years. Consider that in the three years after winning the franchise’s first World Series in 28 years, the Phillies have essentially coasted to the post-season, in the sense that a berth in the playoffs seemed relatively assured each year at the All-Star break. In spite of that, each year management aggressively, and at no small cost, improved the Phillies at the end of July to the point that the players that took the field in the playoffs have been materially better than the players that actually got them into the post-season.
In 2009, they acquired Cliff Lee to replace an ailing Brett Meyers. In 2010, despite somehow winning 97 games with Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer starting 50 total games, by the time the playoffs came around, Roy Oswalt was part of the rotation. Last year, while easily posting the best record in baseball, the front-office addressed a lack of production in right field by acquiring Hunter Pence. The Phillies were going to make the post-season in all of those years, so essentially the organization’s revenues were fixed. Therefore each of those moves lowered the bottom line but increased the Phillies’ chances of winning post-season games. For valuing the next win more than the next dollar, Philadelphia’s front-office should be commended.
However, they are about to pay dearly for a decision they made two years ago that may hamper the organization’s ability to shun the marginal dollar and therefore put an end to the mid-season acquisitions of talent. At the beginning of the 2010 season, with two years still left on his contract, the Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a five-year $125 million extension. It was, at that cost, an extremely silly extension. Howard had had two great seasons, earning him Rookie of the Year and an MVP Award but they were in 2005 and 2006 and by 2010 it was clear Howard had a huge hole in his swing against left-handed pitchers. Further, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder were scheduled to be free-agents after the 2011 season meaning almost certainly it would be a buyer’s market for slugging first basemen. Further, and prepared to be shocked by this, Albert Pujols is younger than Ryan Howard! Incredibly, for the next five years the Phillies will be paying Ryan Howard more money in each year than the Angels are paying Pujols.
It’s the owners' money and they can spend it as they wish, but the fans are going to suffer because the Phillies are not going to be in a position to improve themselves at mid-season (or perhaps resign Cole Hamels after 2012.) That might be a problem because, according to some naysayers, unlike the last three years the Phillies may need to improve themselves not with an eye on the post-season but just to get in the post-season.
That, however, ends the gloomy portion of the Phillies’ 2012 outlook. The Phillies managed to win an MLB-best and franchise-record 102 games last season despite the fact that their starting eight fielders in the playoffs only played in an average of 122 games for the team last year. That means a full 25% of the Phillies’ at-bats were taken by replacements, and with the exception of John Mayberry, Jr. the replacements were by and large horrendous. Dane Sardinha and Brian Schneider combined to hit less than .190 in 47 starts at catcher. Pete Orr and Michael Martinez started a total of 72 games and hit .219 and .196 respectively. With a modest improvement in health, a full season of Hunter Pence in right field and a big upgrade in left field offensively and defensively with John Mayberry, Jr. replacing the departed Raul Ibanez, the Phillies should score about as many runs as last year. Put another way, only one Phillie, Shane Victorino, had a year so productive in 2011 that regression appears inevitable. That drop-off, and Howard’s absence from the line-up should be largely offset by getting Orr, Martinez, Sardinha, etc. less at-bats than last year.
Normally a team that projects to score almost 700 runs implies that team will have a fight on its hands just to get to the post-season. The only National League team in the last five years to get into the playoffs while scoring less than 700 runs was the 2009 San Francisco Giants and they didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the last game of the season. 700 runs should be more than enough for the Phillies however, because their pitching staff remains, by a comfortable margin, the best in baseball.
Even with the loss of Roy Oswalt to free-agency, the returning four starters of Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Worley threw 813 innings last season and allowed 246 total runs, which includes unearned runs. 813 innings equals 55% of the season so even if the entire rest of the staff – which includes above-average (for 5th starters) back of the rotation fill-ins Joe Blanton and Joel Punier, and closer Jonathan Papelbon – merely had a league average RA of 4.17 (NL average ERA was 3.82 in 2011, but the RA, which includes unearned runs was 9% higher at 4.17) over the other 45% of innings, the opponents would score a total of 553 runs.
A team that scores 700 runs and allows 553 projects to win 98 games. So if you’re a fan of one of the teams who believe the Phillies are vulnerable this year, where do you see this projection falling short? Here might be some of the reasons:
- Halladay, Lee, and Hamels regress. The problem with citing regression in the case of pitchers is that, unlike batters, their skill sets are much more stable across the aging curve. Halladay is 35 and Lee 33 and Hamels, at 27, has just reached his prime. There are no signs that the strikeout, walk or groundball rates of the three aces are deteriorating. Looking at the two areas of pitcher performance that can fluctuate wildly from year-to-year, and therefore contain elements of randomness, only Halladay’s home-run-to-fly ball ratio and Hamels batting-average-on-balls-in-play are candidates for regression.
- Vance Worely can’t possibly be as good as last year. This is true to an extent. Worley probably isn’t a 3.02 ERA talent, but his peripheral skills suggest he’s going to keep his ERA below the league average of 3.82. He’s also 24 with a lot of room for growth.
- The Phillies offense won’t score 700 runs. 694 runs was MLB average last year. This projection doesn’t have the Phillies as anything other than average on offense. It’s hard to look at the Phillies line-up and see at what position the performance will be at-or-below replacement level, which is what will be required to drag the entire unit significantly below average.
- The bullpen will blow up. I suppose this is the most plausible as all bullpens are subject to wild fluctuations and, outside of Papelbon, the Phillies have bullpen pieces that have been prone to peaks and valleys in their careers. So that is vulnerability, but it’s more of a wish for the Phillies’ opposition than an event which can be forecasted.
(For the record, in terms of starter regression, I have the core four starters allowing 291 runs over 837 innings which does have some regression in the form of 45 extra runs allowed vs. 2011, albeit in 24 more innings pitched.)
The Phillies actually have a couple hidden elements in their favor as well. A very good fielding team in 2011, the Phillies have replaced the weak link in that unit, Raul Ibanez, with a much younger and more athletic, John Mayberry, Jr. A full year of Hunter Pence is a big defensive upgrade over Ben Francisco and Dominic Brown. Additionally, although the Phillies were top-tier as a unit in turning batted balls into outs, they slipped to just above league average in effective defensive efficiency because of this:
Outfield Assists Outfield Double Plays
MLB Total 837 211
MLB Average 28 7
Phillies 15 0
Outfield assists, and especially those which start double plays are the highest-leverage, hidden helpers a pitching staff has because those assists erase runners in scoring position and reduce the need to pitch to more batters. The Phillies pitching staff, already the best in baseball got zero help in this regard from the defense. Just as surely as the Royals outfielders will not have 51 assists and start 13 double plays in 2012, the Phillies won’t post another zero in the double plays started category. A move to just league average could add a win or two to the run prevention without anyone noticing it. (A full discussion of defensive efficiency is included here: http://tradingbases.squarespace.com/blog/2012/3/1/2012-preview-kansas-city-royals.html )
Finally, the Phillies have the easiest schedule in the division. Look no further to the interleague slate to understand why. While the Mets and the Braves play the Yankees six times a piece this year, the Phillies avoid the Bombers altogether and even get three dates with the Minnesota Twins.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: Five division titles in a row is a lot and it’s natural to start wondering when the run is going to come to an end. From what I gather the fans and front offices of the other NL East teams feel the 2012 season may mark the end of the Phillies’ reign. Oddsmakers aren’t calling it that way though, making the Phillies strong-to-prohibitive favorites to win the NL East and setting Philadelphia’s over/under at 93 ½ wins, just three wins below last year’s pre-season expectation, when Oswalt was on the staff and Howard wasn’t hurt. I see it the same way the oddsmakers do.
93-69 – First in NL East
699 Runs Scored 596 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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